Liza Monroy, author of Mexican High shares her experience writing autobiographical fiction.June 23, 2008
I had set out to write a memoir. What happened?
I was on the phone with my friend, the Mexican artist Ricardo Gonzalez, the other day, catching up after almost a year. We’d met while attending the same international high school in Mexico City and both ended up in New York for our careers. He’d seen that my novel, Mexican High, was about to be published.
“So how much of it is true?” he asked.
“Oh,” he said, sounding confused.
“There’s one anecdote in there I know you’d know,” I said, wanting to navigate into more concrete territory. “Remember that thing about the guy who was on acid at a party and disappeared, then jumped the fence at the Chapultepec Zoo into the hyena cage?”
Oh, yeah,” he said. “Everyone talked about that. It was crazy.”
This is why I didn’t write a memoir. My memoir of high school in Mexico City would have gone something like the conversation with Rick: “ So there was this guy, I don’t remember his name, but rumor had it he accidentally jumped into a hyena pit . . . Crazy.”
With fiction, on the other hand . . .
I spent my four years of high school attending the international prep school in Mexico City that the school in Mexican High is loosely based on. Ever since I left, I was fascinated with the setting, the people I’d met, and the freedoms teenagers had there. The student council sponsored parties with open-bar beer, rum, vodka, and tequila, as well as weeknight “cocteles”—cocktail parties—where they rented out nightclubs—again, with open bars. No one would drive drunk, because everyone had drivers and being drunk was frowned upon as déclassé, anyway. My peers’ parents were of a small, elite group that ran the country. My sophomore year, somebody’s father was actually assassinated, and he was pulled out of class to be rushed to his dying father’s bedside in the hospital. My mother went on some dates with the head of a prison where major drug lords were held. He was eventually assassinated, too. Kids took acid and streaked through graveyards or dove into the cages of wild carnivores.
The whole place and events that had happened felt rife for memoir, which, in our reality-obsessed age, seems to be a more popular form than the novel. So, at twenty-five, eight years after graduating from that high school and moving back to the States, I embarked on the project. The opening scene was my thirteen-year-old self arriving in Mexico City and feeling overwhelmed by the chaos and pollution. I’d come from Rome, and was devastated to not have been able to stay there for high school.
I got seventy-five pages in, then I was stumped. The memoir wasn’t working and I couldn’t figure out why. I started again, with a different opening, then again. I began doubting whether or not I could even write a book. If I couldn’t write about this, the most heightened time in my young life, how could I ever write anything?
Before law school applications were due, I realized the fundamental flaw in my years-in-the-making memoir-writing plan. A memoir must centralize on the “I,” the most important character, the narrator. I, as a teenager, simply wasn’t the right narrator for the story. I’d come to Mexico City, witnessed a fascinating world, and left. I had no personal connection to the place, and the fact that teenagers had wild lives, easy access to drugs and alcohol, and drivers and bodyguards didn’t give enough of a reason to write my memoir. I didn’t suffer from addictions or sexual trauma (the rape scene in the book was born entirely from imagination). Nor did I have too dramatic a childhood, or come to some kind of grand epiphany in Mexico other than believing freedom was healthy for teenagers, which struck me as a more pedestrian realization, not the stuff of literature. Simply put, the story I wanted to tell wasn’t my story. So then, whose was it?
One late summer night, riding a ferry to Cherry Grove, Fire Island, a vibrant and diverse beach town off the coast of Long Island where I was spending a weekend, I remembered a necklace my mother had bought when we were in Mexico. It was made of charms called milagros, the Spanish word for miracles and surprises, which, as I wrote in the book, “were said to bring luck for whatever they represented. An arm stood for strength, a leg for travel.” What if Milagro were a person, a character, a girl? Slowly, the story came. She could move to Mexico with her diplomat mother (like me). Her mother could have sold Milagro necklaces on the beach when she was young (unlike my mother). Milagro could search for her father, a Mexican politician whose identity her mother had always kept secret (completely fictional storyline). Since it wasn’t a memoir, I no longer had to be married to, or at least in a very serious relationship with, solely true events and people. The birth of these three characters gave the story a backbone, and also turned Mexican High into a bona fide novel, barely recognizable as based anywhere near the true events of my life.
Suddenly, time—and pages—were flying.
Still, I sometimes feel like The Girl Who Cried Fiction. Many of the stories-within-the-story of things Milagro says, does, and experiences range from “precisely what happened” to “deeply rooted in fact” to “loosely based on truth.” There is an emotional authenticity to the story of Milagro’s missing father, as I also have an estranged parent. The story told in Chapter Ten, “When You Steal from Yourself,” about faking a robbery in one’s own home to get out of getting in trouble, is something that I, embarrassingly enough, actually did in high school. (The chapter’s title comes from the song “Slide” by the band Luna, which I was obsessed with in high school.) Also true is the peyote trip in the desert, rendered in Chapter Nine, “Real de Catorce,” though I went with different people. Compressing the timeline of the narrative from four years to one streamlined the story and improved the pacing, and also resolved the dilemma of what I would do with all those long, languid, and quite eventless summer vacations.
By switching to the mode of loosely autobiographical fiction, I got to have my milagros and wear them, too.